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A visit to Washington state’s Long Beach Peninsula

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For most travelers, the southwestern corner of Washington state is easy to bypass.  It lies well over an hour’s drive from the busy I-5 Interstate Freeway.  The broad mouth of the Columbia River limits access from the Oregon coast and the geography of the peninsula limits access from northern Washington.  The peninsula is several hours drive from airports in the nearest major cities, about 2 hours (110 mi) from Portland and 3 hours(180 mi) from Seattle.  So you really have to plan to visit here and can’t just drop by.  My wife and I were definitely motivated to go as the Long Beach Peninsula was the last major region of Washington State we had not visited.

The Journey to Long Beach Peninsula

Our drive took us from Seattle, through Tacoma, towards the coast to Aberdeen and then south paralleling the Pacific Ocean and Willapa Bay.  We drove through some pretty farming country, past lumber yards and the lush green forests whose timber made Washington state famous and inspired its nickname (“the Evergreen State“).  An interesting sight on the drive is a lengthy stretch of new growth forest in an area where  the 120 mph (180 kmph) winds of a past hurricane had snapped and torn down dozens of miles of forest.  Hurricanes in the northwest are rather rare events and the damage was impressive!  The large shallow bottomed Willapa Bay is one of the great oyster harvesting areas of the world, and we can see the many beds of oysters, now a crop cultivated in a three year rotation.   Across the Bay we get our first glimpse of Long Beach Peninsula, our destination.

Another option is to take route 4 from Longview, Washington, along the course of the Columbia River, a very picturesque route which we used to connect with the I-5 freeway on our way back north.  It’s farm and timber country, sparsely populated, green and lush, with frequent views of the mighty Columbia River.   You can also combine these two drives to make a great loop trip allowing you to see a large portion of southwestern Washington state.

The Topgraphy and History of Long Beach Peninsula

The peninsula is remarkably flat, not unlike much of Florida or the area around Cape Cod.  It’s characterized by a broad sandy beach, sand dunes with grass, and some moss-draped trees.  It’s cool, often cloudy, and usually somewhat windy; rain is not rare.  There are a number of small towns on the peninsula, mostly villages really, whose main industry now is tourism.

The southern part of Long Beach Peninsula has great significance in American History as it was the most westerly destination of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition, who spent a winter here on the mouth of the Columbia River in 1805 (though mostly on the Oregon side).  Lewis and Clark’s travels represent one of the most fascinating chapters in American History as they, at President Thomas Jefferson’s request, succeeded in discovering a route across the intimidating mountain ranges of the west to the distant Pacific Ocean.  (I found it interesting a few years ago when visiting Monticello to discover that President Jefferson was hopeful that they might also discover dinosaurs or mammoths on the far side of those mountains.)  The people of the area still takes great pride in the role their region played in this historic journey and during the 200th anniversary of Lewis and Clark’s journey, in 2005, many improvements were made on the peninsula to help in the celebration.

The next major discovery in the area was that of the huge oyster beds in Willapa Bay.  Once discovered, the oyster fishery grew rapidly.  Oysters from this bay were wildly popular during the California Gold Rush in the mid 19th century; back then a plate of fresh Willapa oysters cost as much as $50 dollars in San Francisco (which works out to several thousand dollars in modern inflated greenbacks).

The peninsula today (and for the past century) exists mostly because of it’s tourist industry, supplemented by a good fisheries (especially of clams and oysters).  It is also an excellent place to grow cranberries and you’ll find sunken cranberry bogs throughout the interior of the peninsula.

What to do in Long Beach Peninsula

We were surprised at the large diversity of activities available in the region.  In this weekend visit we could only begin to scratch the surface and realize the peninsula would make a great week long vacation destination.  Here’s some of what’s available to you:

1) The Beach.  Long Beach Peninsula boasts the longest drivable beach in the world, with 28 miles of wide open flat sandy beach.  So popular is this activity that the beach is actually considered a Washington state highway, with a 25 mph speed limit and number of access points along the peninsula.  The water off the coast is cold and the rough waves, dangerous currents and riptides do not make it a good swimming beach (with the exception of Waikiki beach at the very southern end of the peninsula, though the water isn’t any warmer).  But the beach is very popular with horseback riders, beachwalkers, beachcombers, razor clam hunters and kite flyers. It’s a great place to build a sand castle and, in the warmer summer days, to sunbathe.

The Discovery Trail is a Lewis and Clark themed trail worth walking, rollerblading or cycling.  It starts at the north end of Long Beach and is a (mostly) paved path that allows you to travel south to Beard’s Hollow, then east to Ilwaco.  Besides endless views of the sea and sky, there are several monuments by the trail erected to commemorate Lewis and Clark’s visit to the area including a bronze statue of a tree on which Lewis and Clark carved their name, a basalt column, and a statue of Lewis and a sturgeon.

The popular Long Beach Boardwalk stretches for almost half a mile. Offering great views and educational displays, the boardwalk is a short walk from downtown Long Beach.

2) Visit the peninsula’s many small towns.  There are over a half dozen small towns and villages on the Long Beach peninsula, each with its own personality.  Seaview is the entry point to the peninsula and has nicely preserved Victorian homes and some great restaurants (we ate at “The Depot” where we had one of our best meal of shellfish ever!).  If your time is limited make sure you explore Oysterville, a small village which has many of its pretty homes part of a National Historic District.  Oysterville is an old oystering community that’s been around for over 150 years.

3)  Cape Disappointment State Park is one of the most visited parks in Washington state.  Situated at the southern end of the peninsula at the mouth of the Columbia River, a visit to its forested hills is well worth your time.  There are 2 lighthouses in the park, one facing the Pacific (North Head lighthouse, sometimes facing hurricane force winds) and the other the Columbia River (Cape Disappointment lighthouse, built in 1856 and the oldest on the West Coast).  It was in this area that the Lewis and Clark expedition wintered in 1805.  There is a Lewis and Clark Interpretative Center in the park which provides detailed explanations of the famed Corps of Discovery’s journey to the Pacific, focusing especially on their stay in this region.

4) Leadbetter Point State Park Natural Area  is situated at the northern most tip of the peninsula and is a forested preserve well known for its variety of birds.  If you’re a bird watcher, this is the place you’ll want to visit first.  Hiking trails take you into a quiet backcountry.

5) Visit a museum or go shopping.  The World Kite Museum is supposed to be interesting, though we did not get a chance to see it.    There’s a free Cranberry Museum nestled in some cranberry bogs.  There are dozens of small boutique and antique stores along the peninsula with friendly welcoming proprietors.

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